Fashion: Thierry Mugler

For more than 25 years, Thierry Mugler has cultivated his fetish for fashion. In a rare interview, he talks to Ian Phillips. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Donna Trope

Ian Phillips
Saturday 05 December 1998 01:02 GMT

Monsieur Mugler is ready to receive us. His PR tries to open the first in a series of opaque glass doors, behind which the designer has his secret office. Unfortunately, she has not been given the combination to the electronic keypad and is forced to ask for help. When the first door clicks open, we enter into the room in which Mugler does his fittings. It is almost empty, except for four black busts sporting futuristic hats. Everything is white - the walls, the ceiling, the floors, the moulded plastic desk. At the end of the room is another glass door. On the wall beside it is a large red light. "When the red light is on, entrance strictly prohibited" reads a sign next to it. Fortunately, it is not lit. Another red light on a control panel next to the desk is, however, glowing brightly. We wait until it goes off and then enter the designer's inner sanctum.

It is said that Mugler can lock himself away in his studio near the Pompidou Centre in Paris for two months before a collection and never go out. Most people would have trouble spending more than a couple of hours there. Near the entrance are forbidding weight- training machines. There are floor-to-ceiling mirrors and a few photos stuck to the wall, but otherwise everything is also bright white (Mugler later says that the world has become too sterile. His certainly is.)

I am invited to sit on what resembles a dentist's chair. A few minutes later, the designer appears dressed in black trousers and a black shirt unbuttoned to his navel. The sleeves are rolled up to reveal scars on his forearms (probably due to the removal of tattoos) and bulging biceps.

He is not in a good mood.

His PR has brought with her a copy of his latest book, Fashion Fetish Fantasy. In it, she has used Post-It notes to mark various pages. He has a fit. "What are those?" he rages, and starts ripping them out. Throughout the rest of the interview he remains civil but makes no effort to please.

The book (published in the UK on 8 February by Thames and Hudson), is a collection of photos of Mugler's work over the past 20 years. A few pages suffice to get an idea of his trademark style - sexy figure-hugging glamour, combined with the wild and wacky: rhinestone swimsuits, PVC bodysuits, and motorcycle breastplates. The book is also littered with quotes from stars who have modelled for him - Diana Ross, Cyd Charisse, Tippi Hedren, Ivana Trump, porn star Jeff Stryker and drag queen Jimmy Arias. "On a scale from one to 10, in Mugler I feel like an 11!" reads former Catwoman Julie Newmar's contribution.

Many of the images were taken by Mugler. He embarked upon his photographic career in 1978 after a run-in with Helmut Newton. He had hired the German photographer to shoot one of his campaigns. Newton swiftly became annoyed by Mugler's constant interference. "I was furious that somebody should tell me how to take my photos," recalls Newton. At the end, he bluntly suggested Mugler should take his photos himself. The designer took his advice, and now devotes half of his time to photography. He has just shot a series called "Sex Couture" for the 45th anniversary issue of American Playboy.

He still remembers the first photo he took as an adolescent - a portrait of one of the lead female dancers in the Rhine Opera. Mugler was born in Strasbourg in 1948 and entered the company at the age of 14. He describes his childhood as being "very, very difficult". "Nothing suited me," he says. "I found everything very, very boring, was very, very ill-at-ease and very, very lonely." His father was a doctor. His mother was apparently considered to be "the most elegant woman in town". "She was a star," enthuses Mugler. "A very beautiful woman and very creative." She would make her own jewellery and hats, and add her own touches to the outfits she bought - cuffs in monkey fur to a red crepe Pierre Cardin outfit. Not surprisingly, she was also his first muse. He was not, however, close to her ("I was close to nobody") and admits that even today, he is not family-oriented. He does not know what his elder brother does and one close friend says she knew Mugler for years before being introduced to his mother.

As a child, Mugler would bunk off school and spend his days wandering around the old part of Strasbourg. He says he spent most of his time writing plays, making costumes and going to the cinema. At 14, he was given dispensation to attend the Decorative Arts School in Strasbourg, two years before the usual minimum age. A few months later, however, he decided to join the corps de ballet of the Rhine Opera, "forced" his father to sign the contract (he simply stopped working at art school) and moved out of the family home. With the small salary he received as a dancer, he rented a small room in the town.

By the age of 20, Mugler had moved to Paris in search of a contemporary dance company. Soon, however, he became more involved in the world of fashion and was starting to make his own clothes. "They were very colourful," he says. "I remember I had an old army coat which trailed on the ground and a pair of trousers, dyed in all the colours of the rainbow. I would also wear a huge plastic orchid in my lapel and had an acid-green jacket with royal blue buttons in the form of stars."

He quickly landed a job as window dresser for a Parisian boutique. Shortly afterwards, he started creating clothes for the stores and, in the late Sixties, spent a number of years as a freelance designer, living between Notting Hill and a houseboat in Amsterdam. By 1973, he was back in Paris, designing for a label called Cafe de Paris. In 1974, he launched his own Thierry Mugler label to immediate success. His first collections were picked up by Browns in London, as well as the American department stores Neimann Marcus and Saks.

While the rest of the fashion world was still on a hippy trip, Mugler's clothes sculpted the body - the sexuality was overt and there was more than a touch of the military. "I have always tried to sublimate the body and to make people dream," he asserts. His style prefigured Eighties' power dressing, leading the way for a generation of designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaia. In 1984, he produced the first super-show, which was attended by over 6,000 spectators. Even today, Mugler supervises all aspects of the music, set, lighting and choreography for his catwalk presentations.

At his last couture show in July, Hollywood legend Cyd Charisse sashayed down the runway in a dazzling sequinned number and Jerry Hall and her daughter, Elizabeth Scarlett, donned matching fake-fur outfits. It is difficult to imagine who would want to wear his outrageous creations (Mugler cites Ivana Trump and the wealthy socialite Mouna Ayoub as clients), but they are certainly entertaining. "He takes real pleasure in designing," asserts Francois Baudot from French Elle, who is also the author of a book on Mugler. "I think he is one of the few designers who really has fun."

But reactions to Mugler's fashion have not always been so light-hearted. Feminists have branded him a misogynist, who turns women into sex objects. Others have accused him of adhering to a Fascist aesthetic. "I want my models to be bigger, stronger and taller than common mortals," he once said. "I need superwomen and supermen." His photos show a predilection for monumental statuary and a world in which human forms are dwarfed by buildings or elements of nature. And Mugler does nothing to dispel any links with Fascist art. Instead, he cites Hitler's filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, as one of his "heroes in real life". For him, she is simply "a true artist ... who brought an enormous contribution to the development of cinematographic technique."

Whatever the prevailing trend in fashion, Mugler has retained his own vision. "All the top designers fling themselves at every fashion magazine in existence to see what is going on elsewhere and to spot trends," says Francois Baudot. "Thierry doesn't look at them. He is in his own world and his obsessions are always the same."

He certainly doesn't have much respect for today's young designers. When I mention the words "avant-garde," it triggers a stream of vitriol. His voice breaks as he asserts that models today are "ugly and hideous". He calls the designers themselves "pathetic", "dirty" and "pretentious", and declares that most fashion shows are "sinister". "It may be fashionable to show one's problems," he continues, "but for me, fashion is a service. It is supposed to improve people's lives and to help them. I am not trendy. I am not `in fashion'. I am simply a positive human being, who has a positive outlook on life."

At times, Mugler says the most ridiculous things. During our interview, he stresses a desire for pills to replace food. "I think it's really old-fashioned to eat and to chew three or four times a day," he says. "Hindu sages say that you should concentrate while eating. But, we don't have time anymore. Fast food is not quick enough for me. I would like super-fast food in the form of pills."

As it is, he is incredibly diet-conscious and does not eat red meat. His hobby - not surprisingly - is bodybuilding. In fact, he spends most of the day sleeping, or working out with his personal trainer, and often only starts work at 4pm. Though he may then stay at the office until 5am.

Caludec Deloffre, who edited Fashion Fetish Fantasy, has known Mugler for 30 years and says that he has adopted various persona during that time. "He really can change quite a lot," she says. "At the moment, he is in a tough-man mode, but, in actual fact, there is a lot of emotion and tenderness underneath."

Whatever the persona, however, Mugler always seems to go to extremes. "When he goes swimming, he'll swim for miles," declares Deloffre. "When he goes on trips, it's always to somewhere quite extreme - to an immense desert or to Greenland." He also regularly disappears without leaving his close business partners a means of contacting him. He now spends six months of the year in New York, and in Paris has a house near the Buttes Chaumont park. As he does not like furniture, it is practically empty.

In the past, Mugler has been compared to Peter Pan and when I ask him about the analogy, he seems thoroughly delighted. "Yes, I like that," he enthuses. "It's true that I had a period when I dressed like Peter Pan in tights and the same sort of shoes. I like his naivety, his ability to fly away and to be free".

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